DAMASCUS - No sooner does she hold out her manicured hand to put her cigarette out, than the waiter hurries to replace the ashtray. For the last half an hour or so, he hasnt taken his eyes off the four elegant women sitting on the cafés terrace in a posh Damascus neighborhood. While he cleans the ashes with practiced slowness, the clients interrupt their conversations and briefly exchange glances. Everyone here knows that most of the waiters work for the Syrian intelligence services. Such snitches dont even bother to even hide it anymore, gladly combining their evening jobs with the duties of a civil servant. Surveillance is part of their obligations, and reporting any information to superiors, a regular routine.
Waiters, taxi drivers, hair dressers or even handicapped beggars: Always pay attention to them and to what you say, visitors to Damascus are warned. Many of them are part of the moukhabarat (a term designated for Syrian intelligence services). The inhabitants of the Syrian capital have long been used to seeing men keeping watch on apartment blocks, weapons bulging under their coats. But recently even janitors have been given truncheons to allegedly keep the inhabitants safe.
State surveillance in Syria has taken new forms since the popular uprising started last March. Long banned from souks (or markets), street hawkers have started coming back. In Hamidyeh, the historic souk leading to the Umayyad mosque in Damascus, they have spread their Chinese dolls and womens nightgowns on the ground. Their improvised stalls cut in two the big commercial street where vendors briefly reunited last February to protest against police abuses. In exchange for their right to sell their produce, the vendors must prevent large gatherings from being formed, and report any incident to the security forces. They are also charged with keeping an eye on nearby shops and the passersby who are becoming rarer by the day.
The countrys various security services, which are mainly headed by President Bashar al-Assads brother and cousin, have lately been busily recruiting informants and vigils, to the joy of the unemployed and day laborers. Worried about the absence of two of his carpenters, an interior architect has recently been told by his other workers that the men had been hired by the popular committees for 10,000 Syrian pounds (22 dollars) a day, twice as much as they typically receive from their employer.
These committees formed of men armed with rifles or high-caliber revolvers have been mushrooming in the capital since the anti-government movement began. Claiming to protect inhabitants from thugs, they intervene before and alongside security forces to repress protestors. One of the demands of the people in the street has been the dissolution of these kinds of committees.
Informants have been particularly active around popular gathering places, including mosques. Regulars of the Friday prayer say that one in every three people present there is a moukhabarat. We can easily spot them, says one 70-year-old worshipper. They are especially visible at the end of the prayer, when they mix with the crowd and push us towards the exit. I berated one of them only the other day, because he wouldnt let me talk to my neighbor. I told him: Son, I know youre only doing your job, but tell me: do I look young enough or strong enough to be part of the revolution?
Funerary processions have also been oddly crowded these last weeks, even when it is not a martyr of the governments repression being buried. Reality or paranoia? One thing is sure, watching, listening to and pointing guns at the inhabitants of Damascus is an efficient method to keep them scared. But the regimes ubiquitous snitches also contribute to feeding the peoples ire towards leaders who must resort to buying off and arming its own citizens in order to survive.
Read the original article in French.
Photo - sharnik